Post No.: 0354
Humans are overall a very social and egalitarian species – with extensive friendships and sharing beyond immediate family members being a common norm. Humans pair-bond in lasting intimate relationships – people are overwhelmingly monogamous across diverse and independent cultures. (Whether it’s a genetic phenotype or just a popular cultural meme, or a combination of a bit of both, monogamy is, at least right now and for a while now, far more widespread and successful than polygamy. And although cheating does occur, it’s not celebrated but socially frowned upon.)
Humans aren’t ‘alpha’ animals with harems like gorillas, they don’t rut for mating rights like deer, and don’t lay eggs then leave offspring to raise and fend for themselves like sea turtles. Human babies are extremely fragile and need the social care and attention from others to even have a chance of survival. People conduct in both conflict and reconciliation rather than move away from their past enemies i.e. humans forgive. Humans consciously and subconsciously coordinate together – people even yawn or laugh together as if they’re tightly in sync with each other. People copy each other – straight from birth, babies start to learn by copying others. In short, being social and cooperative basically helped and helps humans to survive and thrive!
Humans are not simply a selfish species. One’s genes may be described as being ‘selfish’ for ‘wanting’ to propagate (if individual genes had any sentience to ‘want’ anything that is) but the organism (which does have sentience) and the evolved strategy of that organism and species are not necessarily about being selfish. (It’d otherwise be like saying atoms are dead, and therefore we, for being made up of atoms, ought to be dead too.) This is why we see so much natural, autonomous and instinctive altruism, innate empathy, mimicry/copying/fitting in and cooperation – both behaviourally and neurologically i.e. it’s in the human specie’s evolution and biological makeup (e.g. mirror neurons, oxytocin networks, the vagus nerve as a highway for emotional intuitions (amongst other functions that are key to well-being)).
Well in practice, to be selfish at the gene level, a social animal like a human must cooperate rather than be selfish at the organism level. It’s not manifestly wrong that organisms can and do frequently behave selfishly but the reality is far more complex than that. People do generally want to maximise their own pleasure and positive emotions and avoid pain or negative emotions, but experiments have shown that in some cases people will consciously want to help others even if it hurts themselves, and so the simple model of a ‘purely self-interested, economic-maximising individual’ is mistaken.
So humans are wired with the capacity for empathy, social cooperation and mutual aid, not just with a capacity for competition. Just like sex feels pleasurable in order to encourage an adult human to repeat this behaviour because it serves an overall advantage for the species, most people literally feel pleasure when behaving kindly or altruistically – hence altruism must’ve been a genetically evolved and rewarding behaviour that’s worth repeating for serving an overall beneficial advantage. Woof!
Trust is the basis for a well-functioning economic system too (e.g. honouring contracts), rather than pure self-interests or competition alone. So it’s virtuous behaviours and honour that makes sophisticated economies possible and work smoothly, not greed or ruthlessness (which is more like the behaviour of an underground black market where ‘buyer beware’ and scams are the norm). Trade works through trust and reciprocation, even with strangers – it’s in our interests to understand, empathise, get on with and be nice to each other. (See Post No.: 0224 for more about how trust is probably the most crucial thing in any sort of productive relationship, be it personal or business.)
In fact, taking care of each other and living sustainably rather than greedily or short-term selfishly is the enlightened way to maximise our long-tem self-interests. We need to think and act globally for issues like global warming or global pandemics, for instance. Nations are far less likely to go to war against each other if they are mutually economically tied via free trade too because if one side tries to hurt the other, they’ll hurt themselves as well. When we (understand that we) have common goals and interests, we’re less likely to fight and more likely to cooperate because it’s either ‘win-win’ or ‘lose-lose’ together.
However, we do need a balance of oxytocin (which promotes trust) and chemicals like testosterone and cortisol to protect ourselves from risk or exploitation – we cannot be happy and trusting all of the time. We need some stress and fear to conduct risk assessments so that we won’t be taken advantage of when people sometimes act untrustworthily. (Note that oxytocin, like testosterone, has many different effects on our bodies, which are good or bad depending on the context and their balance.) Yet we shouldn’t be paranoid or too suspicious of each other either.
We frequently underestimate the positive impact of interacting with and reaching out to others – so we need to include those on the periphery or sidelines to show them that they’re valued too. It’s not nice to go through life unnoticed, unwanted and unloved. We tend to underestimate how happy our random acts of kindness, furry compliments or thank you letters make their recipients feel.
It’s strange that otherwise highly social people in crowded cities actively try to ignore each other in the modern world (e.g. by burying their heads in their phones)! It links with the self-fulfilling effect of being suspicious of outgroup members – you ignore them so they ignore you, and so it seems to confirm that they’re not pleasant when really they’re thinking that you’re not pleasant because you’re ignoring them(!) Therefore we should occasionally talk with strangers when sitting on public transport or in a café, for instance, because it’ll likely be pleasant for them as well as for you. Loneliness and isolation are not good for our well-being, while positive social relationships are good; whether we’re extroverted or introverted. If you assume that others will be unpleasant and you therefore never try to interact with them, then you’ll never learn that your expectations might be wrong, which could perpetuate these misconceptions, self-fulfil your negative assumptions and keep you disconnected from others. We cannot trust all strangers but if strangers are considered weird then you’re considered weird for being a stranger to others! If we just say, “Hello” and maybe try a bit of small talk, or at least look up and smile at people as we walk by, we will realise that they’re just people too.
The architecture of a place can create loneliness or a sense of community (e.g. stairways that are private or lobbies that are shared). Hermits prefer their own company but such people are relatively rare exceptions. Now if you are genuinely content with being alone then you are content and no one else can say otherwise – being and genuinely wanting to be alone is not the same thing as being and not wanting to be lonely, especially if this loneliness is long-term. Introverts tend to need fewer friends than extroverts to feel happy, and in general, having a few high quality friendships is far better for our well-being than having a lot of poor quality ones. One can also feel lonely amongst a crowd, or can feel connected when physically alone if one feels a sense of being understood by lots of other people in the world.
But there is no doubt – humans evolved for each other. Even though I’m personally a little introverted, frisky furmiliars like me evolved as social creatures too!